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A Pledge Worth Keeping

Public funding offers the opportunity to show that these candidates truly do value voters over dollars…

  • Laura MacCleery
March 20, 2008

 Earlier this month, there was a quite a kerfuffle over the presidential public funding system and whether Senators McCain and Obama, if named their parties’ nominee, would claim some $85 million in public money for the general election. 

Confusion among Democrats has put this issue on a back-burner, but just for now. Senator Clinton has made no promises about accepting public funding, but should Obama emerge the nominee, this quandary will likely be front-and-center again quite quickly.

If Obama is the Democratic nominee, both he and McCain should rapidly agree to accept public money in the general election, as sound campaign policy and as a statement of principle. Public funding in the general election makes particular sense because it allows presidential candidates to avoid an unseemly spectacle of passing the hat to wealthy donors in the last days leading up to an election.

This is valuable time in the course of a campaign that should be spent communicating with voters. Particularly in light of the record turn-out in this primary season and the energized electorate of new small donors, public funding offers the opportunity to demonstrate that these candidates truly do value voters over dollars.  

While the flaws in the presidential funding system are serious, they are mainly concerns the tight limits on spending in the primary phase rather than the general election. These could easily be remedied next year by Congressional passage of a bill to update the program. It is well worth saving.

The presidential public funding system worked well for 30 years, allowing challengers to beat incumbents in 3 out of the 6 races. It generally receives the credit for assisting successful presidential bids by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In fact, since the program began in 1976, public funding was accepted by both Republican and Democratic candidates in every general election – even in 2000 and 2004, when the flow of money during the primary season was record-breaking.

It is a testament to the durability and value of the idea of a publicly funded campaign that both Senators McCain and Obama would anticipate its use in the general election. The amount of funds available – $85 million – is a substantial sum given the shortness of time between the close of the party conventions in August and the beginning of November. Obviously, this total was viewed as sufficient by both candidates as recently as last year.

It is true that the presidential public funding system does need work: it has not been meaningfully updated in 30 years. Bills pending in both the House (Shays-Price) and Senate (Feingold-Collins) would increase the amount of the match for the primary and dismantle outdated state-specific spending limits, provide matching funds for spending by non-participating opponents, increase the level of coordinated party spending, and increase the amount of funds available in both the primary and the general election (for example, to $100 million for the general). The bills also improve public education on the tax check-off that funds the program and increases the amount. (Note for April 15th – checking this box will not increase your taxes.) Also cosponsoring the legislation in the Senate are Obama and Clinton, among others. McCain has been supportive in the past but has declined to sponsor the bill while running for president.

Sen. Obama, in an op-ed for USA Today, raised several concerns about the mechanics of accepting the funds. In particular, he worried about the differences in the dates of the nominating conventions (the Democrats will go first by a few days), and about the impact of independent spending by outside groups, some of which have already pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attack or defend both parties’ nominees. If the time comes, Obama said that he planned to pursue an agreement with McCain to address these matters.

In the background is a devastating 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision from last summer, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. A narrow opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts re-opened a loophole once closed by Senators McCain and Feingold in their landmark 2003 campaign finance reform law. The ruling will doubtless open the floodgates for massive independent spending by outside groups seeking to influence the election, which can now pay for these ads with money from the corporate treasury.

In light of this serious setback, reform for the presidential public funding system should consider a system to provide more money, up to a cap, to match independent expenditures in the general election, as this could dwarf direct spending by candidates in this election and beyond. The goal would not be to match outside money dollar-for-dollar, but instead to ensure that the voice of the candidate is clearly heard. No one should have to sit on their hands while the Swift Boaters circle. 

In addition, the fix bills should provide that the general election season for both parties begin on the same date, such as September 1, to avoid the gaming around convention dates that affects the current disbursements.

Until the system is fixed, the candidates considering use of public funding have been forced to consider a negotiated deal. Time will tell whether an agreement can be brokered that will enable both Senators McCain and Obama to use the public money and assure an even playing field among the candidates – terms Obama called for in his USA Today op-ed. Both should “aggressively pursue an agreement,” as Obama pledged to do.

 3:21/08 – UPDATE on McCain’s and Obama’s public financing pledges in The Politico.